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Private-Property Anarchists and Anarcho-Socialists: Can We Get Along?

All anarchists have in common the desire to eliminate the initiation of aggression as a legitimate form of social interaction. The difference between private-property anarchists and anarcho-socialists most often lies in what each group considers to be aggression. I will attempt to demonstrate that, from a market anarchist point of view, there are two distinct types of anarcho-socialists: the "good" ones, who are willing to live in peace with market anarchist communities, and the "bad" ones, who are not. I recognize that anarcho-socialists of the second type will believe that I have gotten my designations of "good" and "bad" exactly backwards. But then, I'm one of the private-property anarchists with whom they can't get along, so what do they expect from me?

Because of the importance to my distinction of the question, "What, exactly, constitutes aggression?" I will begin by attempting to demonstrate that one mode of understanding any human interaction is its relative location between two polar ideal types: persuasion and aggression. In what follows, I will always use the word "persuasion," unmodified by any adjective, to mean honest persuasion. (An earlier version of this dichotomy was presented on Since that article appeared, Jan Lester has convinced me that where I originally had used "coercion," I should have used "aggression" instead. You can see his book, Escape from Leviathan, for some of his reasoning in this regard.)

When engaging in persuasion, I attempt to convince you that your situation will be better, in your own eyes, if we do interact than it will be if we do not. For example, suppose that you and I each live on our own isolated island, with only the other person's island within sight. Further, we will imagine that neither of us can reach the other's island due to the shark-infested waters in between. We might each go about our business on our own island undisturbed by the existence of the other person. However, we happen to meet one day when each of us is at the edge of his island closest to the other person's. While we chat, I mention to you that there are many coconut trees on my island, but that I'm getting sick of eating coconuts. You respond that on your island, there the mango trees are numerous, and that you are fed up with eating mangoes. After talking things over, we agree that every day, around the same time, we will meet at this same spot. I'll bring a few coconuts and you will bring some mangoes. We will trade by tossing them to each other across the water. It is obvious that each of us prefers our interaction to its absence, since it is trivially easy for either of us to avoid interacting at all. I am perfectly willing to leave you alone if you are uninterested in what I can offer you, and vice versa.

By contrast, in cases of aggression, I force interaction on you without your agreement. Often, I will try to convince you that I have the power and willingness to make your life worse if you refuse to interact with me on the terms I propose. Again, imagine you and me meeting at the edge of our islands. But now, when I discover you have mangoes on your island, I demand that you throw me five per day. If you do not, I tell you, I will lay in wait and kill you the next time I see you by running you through with a spear, which I will hurl across the gap between our islands. Certainly, there is an element of persuasion involved in my threat: I must attempt to convince you that I really intend to kill you, and that I have the ability to act on my intention. Yet the difference in how we interact in our two examples is immense. In the case of the mango-coconut exchange, I am quite willing to leave you alone to go about your business as if we had never met, should my argument for trade fail to persuade you. In the mangoes or death case, I am demanding that we interact, and if you will not do so on the terms I set, I intend to make your situation significantly worse than if you had never laid eyes on me. My persuasive efforts do not attempt to convince you that you would be better off than you are now if you give me mangoes, but rather they try to convince you that if you don't give me mangoes, I can make you much worse off than you are now.

There are three basic ways I might aggress against you: by stealth, by fraud, or by committing or threatening violence against you. I could aggress against you using stealth, for example, by sneaking into your house while you were sleeping and stealing your food. Rather than persuading you to interact with me, I relied on hiding the fact that we did interact in planning my escapade.

I fraudulently aggress against you if I deliberately lie while persuading you to interact with me. For example, in the island scenario we have been examining, I might propose that we exchange coconuts and mangoes. However, rather than tossing whole coconuts across to you, I tie back together the shells of coconuts from which I have already eaten the meat and drank the milk. While I persuaded you to exchange coconuts for mangoes, what we actually exchanged was coconut shells for mangoes.

Finally, I might aggress against you by employing violence or the threat of violence. We already have seen an example of that form of aggression above, where I threatened to skewer you if you didn't bring me mangoes.

I believe that the view of persuasion and aggression adopted here can be helpful in clarifying disputes over what types of action are inherently aggressive. For example, socialist anarchists often contend that the ownership of capital goods and the payment of a wage for labor are constitute aggression on their face.

But let us consider again the circumstance of you and me as island castaways. Imagine, now, that each of us has built a boat, and that we meet in the sea somewhere between our two islands. There I discover that during your residency on your island, you have constructed a de-salinization system by employing your own labor and whatever materials you found on your island. Instead of having to collect rainwater and later drink it, no matter how stale it has become, you can process seawater and drink it fresh whenever you choose. Upon hearing this, I demand that you give me a gallon of fresh water per day. You refuse, instead suggesting that if I brought you a couple of coconuts, you would be happy to trade a gallon of fresh water for them.

In response, I protest that you are aggressing against me, using the "power" you have as an owner of a capital good (your de-salinization system) to "exploit" the labor I have expended in picking coconuts. If the view of persuasion and aggression I adopt here is sensible, then such a claim is absurd. You are perfectly willing to leave me alone and allow me to continue my life as though we had never met. After all, had it not been for your existence, there would be no de-salinization system on your island. You don't demand that I use the facility that you have built, or attempt to force me to labor to supply you with coconuts. Your only demand of me that if we are to interact, then it must be on terms with which we both agree. Furthermore, if you do agree to my terms for exchanging coconuts for water, then it is clear that you must think you are better off engaging in exchange with me than you would be by not doing so. After all, I leave open to you the opportunity to ignore my existence. If you trade with me nevertheless, you must believe your situation is improved by doing so.

When the above line of reasoning was posted to an anarcho-socialist bulletin board, a commentator said that I was ignoring the complexities of real societies in my artificial, Crusoe-like analysis. However, if we want to arrive at the essence of social arrangements, we have no choice but to reduce them to their simplest forms, for only then can their essential character be seen clearly. In every actual social situation we will find a myriad of historical contingencies. Without having first derived various principles concerning social interaction by mentally isolating "pure" instances of ideal types, we will find ourselves adrift in the vast sea of history without compass or rudder. I believe that if we ever wish to come to shore we must heed the advice of Carl Menger:

"In what follows I have endeavored to reduce the complex phenomena of human economic activity to the simplest elements that can still be subjected to accurate observation... [and] to investigate the manner in which the more complex phenomena evolve from their elements according to definite principles" (Principles of Economics).

Indeed, if some anarcho-socialist denies the validity of such fundamental analysis, on what basis can he claim that capital accumulation and wage labor are always instances of aggression? Would he not be forced to examine each historical case individually?

Of course we can think of cases in which the ownership of capital goods and the employment of wage labor are crucially involved in some case of aggression. For instance, we might discover that the traditional hunting grounds of some Indian tribe had been taken from them by force and handed over to some industrialist, who then began mining there. The Indians, bereft of their traditional livelihood and stripped of their main asset, might find themselves with little choice but to work in his mines. Clearly, the Indians were wronged and the industrialist was an aggressor (assuming that he was not an innocent purchaser from the original aggressor). Furthermore, it is no doubt true that many current claims on property are tainted by just such past acts of aggression. To the extent that guilt on the part of the current owner can be proven clearly, most private-property anarchists would approve of rectifying such situations.

However, the example of the de-salinization system demonstrates that there is no inherent aggression in the ownership of capital goods or the employment of wage labor. If someone should want to claim that some particular instance of some capitalist employing some laborers is an act of aggression, then it is incumbent upon that person to show what actual acts of aggression occurred. It is not enough merely to shout, "Wage labor is slavery," and then rest one's case.

Good Anarcho-Socialism

I will take the views of Keith Preston as being exemplary of "good" anarcho-socialism. Recently, Preston briefly summarized his vision of an anarchist world:

"As many readers are no doubt aware, I am an anarcho-socialist myself. I have expounded upon these views elsewhere, so I won't go into them here, except to say that I generally favor an economic order of small businesses and self-employed persons, cooperatives, worker owned/managed industries, Proudhonian banks and other similar institutions operating within the context of a laissez-faire, stateless, free market."

Preston's anarcho-socialism relies on persuading others that they would prefer to live in the sorts of social arrangements he lists above, rather than in more traditionally "capitalist" structures. Preston is perfectly willing to allow those not persuaded by his arguments to start traditional, hierarchical companies, to work for wages, to rent apartments, and so on.

It is interesting to note that Preston's vision of anarcho-socialism avoids the Misesian calculation problem, as his small businesses, cooperatives, worker-owned industries, and so forth deal with each other in an overarching market system in which true market prices can arise. Therefore, people still will be able to engage in economic calculation. Preston's local, socialistic organizations occupy the place of the firm in standard economic theory, although they are firms with unusual (and to Preston preferable) internal structures.

Other socialist anarchists have attempted to answer Mises's critique of socialism through local institutions as well, recognizing that in a group where each member can comprehend fully the activities of most of the other members, economic calculation is not necessary. That is why, for instance, a deli employing five people does not need to perform cost accounting for each of its employees as though they were separate divisions of General Motors.

What many anarcho-socialists do not comprehend is that if they do not allow market prices in the interactions between such small groups, the result will be the elimination of the global division of labor, and, indeed, of any division of labor more extensive than can exist within such groups themselves. "Great!" they might contend, "Who needs trade? Local self-sufficiency is where it's at." However, without the global division of labor, the earth could support only a small fraction of its current population. If the program of anarcho-socialists entails billions perishing so that those left alive can have what they consider to be a more satisfying life, then they should be explicit about it. (To be fair, some radical environmentalists have been explicit about desiring such a result: They want the earth's human population reduced to the level it was at when all humans were hunter-gatherers. They have not garnered much popular support for such a program.)

I will finally mention that Preston's vision of anarchy employs democratic procedures on the only scale at which I (following Aristotle) believe that they are beneficial: that of the polis, or a grouping of citizens all of whom know each other and interact with each other in their daily lives.

Bad Anarcho-Socialism

The "bad" anarcho-socialists are those who would prevent "capitalist acts between consenting adults," to borrow a phrase from Robert Nozick.

Let us imagine that, in an anarcho-socialist world, a group of people decide that they would like to move to some unoccupied place — Antarctica, for instance — and there establish a market anarchist community. (We will set aside the issue of any UN protected status for Antarctica, and imagine it merely to be empty and un-owned, as it essentially is.) They will not coerce anyone who doesn't volunteer into coming along, nor, they pledge, will they force any sort of interaction upon any anarcho-socialist community that doesn't want to deal with them. It is hard to imagine a coherent theory of aggression that construes this exodus as in some way aggressing against someone.

How will anarcho-socialists respond? If they will not allow such an activity, then it is clear to me that they do not, in fact, reject the idea of the State: They merely wish for a State that enforces different norms than do presently existing states. If they will allow the group to create a anarchist society based on private property rights, then their vision of anarchism, while perhaps differing as to how they would like their community to be structured, is in no way incompatible with the vision of private-property anarchists, almost all of whom are willing to allow socialist communities to exist within "their" anarchy.

Some anarcho-socialists contend that capitalist behavior must be banned because capitalists are inherently aggressive and at some point they will surely attempt to dominate and destroy anarcho-socialist communities. But to justify using force against the Antarctic colonists on such a basis is to adopt the pernicious doctrine of the justice of the "preemptive strike." As pointed out by Walter Block, it is consistent with such a view for you simply to attack random people on the street, since it is possible that they might be planning to attack you. Furthermore, such a view seems to ignore the very real and longstanding opposition of private-property anarchists to corporate welfare, corporate monopoly privileges, and international aggression.

Is it possible to describe a larger vision of anarchy that encompasses both the anarchy of private-property anarchists and that of anarcho-socialists? I believe that it is, and I will attempt to do so in the next and final section of this article.

Anarchy as a World of Voluntarily Adopted, Polycentric Law

To avoid the Hobbesian "war of all against all," humans form civil associations, which are groups of people united in recognition of the authority of a set of laws over all the individuals who comprise the group. Anarchists who believe that human culture can exist without the rule of law are indulging a fantasy of living in a world where I can "do whatever I feel like doing, and screw you if you try to stop me."

I suggest that a workable framework for achieving the maximum liberty compatible with the survival of human civilization consists in the recognition of the right of every adult person to freely form civil associations with whomever he wishes, and the right to withdraw from such an association at will, in other words, the right to secede. (At least to me, it is clear that the right to secession as a way to escape punishment for a crime already committed is a problematic notion. In other words, I can't kill someone and then say, "Oh, and by the way, I secede!" Presumably, "secession to dodge criminal proceedings" would be forbidden in the entry agreement for most civil associations.)

Most especially, and in sharp contrast to our current world, the world of voluntarily adopted, polycentric law will allow people to leave civil associations without leaving a geographical location. Unless they have explicitly agreed to remain part of some civil association in their purchase agreement for their property (as, for instance, people often do when purchasing a condo or a home in a planned community), all people should have the right to withdraw both themselves and their land from the authority of their current civil association. Having done so, a person might attempt to join another existing civil association, might try to persuade others to form a new civil association, or might remain outside of any civil association whatsoever.

Our framework leaves even those who chafe at any legal constraints with an "out": they may withdraw completely from civil life and become an "outlaw." Although such a person would be living without the protection of any rule of law, as long as he left the members of existing civil associations alone, there is no reason to suppose he would be pursued or bothered, except perhaps by other outlaws, with whom he would have to deal on his own. Indeed, the ability to "make his own law" in dealing with others whom he feels have wronged him is probably the most important motivation such an "outlaw" has for leaving all civil association behind.

Since members of different civil associations will still interact with each other in the world envisioned here, the question arises as to how conflicts between them can be resolved. As I see it, civil associations will negotiate agreements with other civil associations for arbitrating such disputes. The adoption of a universal right to secession does not make war between civil associations impossible, but it does render it significantly less likely, since any civil association promoting a war that is even mildly unpopular will immediately be faced with a wave of secession.

Some people might criticize what I describe here by claiming that it is not really anarchy at all, and that I am a "closet statist." Well, so be it. I am relatively uninterested if someone decides I am "not really an anarchist," "not really a libertarian," or not really some other label. To me, it seems more important to try to be "really right." So if my proposal strikes you as "not really anarchist," go tell it to the Xmas bunny. If it strikes you as "not really correct," I'm interested.

On the other hand, someone might point out that my proposal is "not really anarchy" because they want to correct my usage. Their point is not that my vision is flawed because it is not really anarchy, but simply that I am using my terms badly. "Anarchy," they may say, "means no ruler, and in your vision people are still ruled by systems of law."

I am more sympathetic to this criticism, but I think my usage is defendable. Under my proposal any person who is not an outlaw is ruled, in one respect, in that he is subject to the rule of law of a civil association. However, he has voluntarily submitted to that rule, and he can voluntarily renounce that submission at any time. No one is ruled as people are today, in that they are essentially captives of the State, subject to its rule willy-nilly. As Jan Lester puts it:

"Both etymologically and in political theory, anarchy means "no rule" in the sense of no proactive control by the state in any form (and is to be contrasted with the various forms of state rule — oligarchy, aristocracy, democracy, etc. — as distinguished, for instance, in Aristotle's Politics). Anarchy does not mean no rules, or no law, or no order: these are chaos rather than anarchy. Anarcho-libertarians are fully in favour of anarchic rules, law and order instead of the state's versions of these, which gross inefficiencies do cause them to approach chaos to varying degrees. Statists confuse themselves if they use "anarchy" to mean chaos or the absence of rules, order and law, and then think that these are reasons to reject what libertarian anarchists are advocating." (private e-mail).

It is true that most people today have at least some possibility of leaving the state in which they live. But they must leave their friends, their families, their jobs, their house, and perhaps even their language behind. They are further hampered by numerous immigration restrictions in other states. (Of course, civil associations might have membership restrictions. But with a vastly greater number of such associations, it is likely that some association would accept any particular would-be member.) And the possibility of choosing a truly different form of civil association is slowly being eliminated by the dawning worldwide state system, where the United States and its First World allies are implementing, by military force, economic pressure, the lure of foreign aid and loans, and other tactics, their social democratic model of state corporatism combined with extensive social benefits and high tax rates upon the entire world.

In so far as the universal right of secession is recognized I believe that the State as we know it today is unlikely to exist. Many civil associations will have features of current states to which various anarchists might object, such as welfare programs, drug laws, prisons, draft laws, and so on. But if the members always have the opportunity to exit, it will be much more difficult for a state engaged in the systematic exploitation of a segment of its populace for the benefit of another segment to arise.

Of course, my proposal does not guarantee that a true state may not emerge. But I don't believe it is reasonable to expect guarantees in life. The widespread acceptance of the belief that human chattel slavery is immoral does not prevent some people from sometimes capturing other people and enslaving them. But one must admit the practice is somewhat less prevalent today than it was in 1750. Similarly, if a right to secession comes to be recognized in the same way, then it seems likely that it will be much more difficult to organize an oppressive state.

Paul Birch expressed a possible problem with the idea I suggest here in doubting the practicality of geographically intermingled civil associations. As he puts it, "unless civil associations, of which persons are voluntarily members, are territorially distinct and not too small, people cannot avoid being subject to laws to which they have not acceded, because disputes will commonly arise between members of different associations, who have different laws."

I believe that deriving authoritative law for interactions between members of different civil associations through negotiation between their civil associations goes some way toward handling this objection. As one piece of evidence suggesting that civil associations need not be geographically contiguous, I will point to a work of fiction: Neal Stephenson's brilliant novel The Diamond Age. While I admit that a fictional world is not nearly as convincing a bit of evidence for the feasibility a political idea as is an actually existing polity based on the idea, nevertheless, the fact that Stephenson can create a coherent, plausible world of geographically intermingled civil associations is at least suggests that such arrangements are not impossible.

An important feature of this take on anarchy is that the possibility of the real world coming to resemble the vision depends almost exclusively on the widespread acceptance of the idea that membership in a civil association should be voluntary.

For one thing, such an idea is already held, albeit incoherently and inconsistently, by many, perhaps even most, people today. We can hear it expressed in calls for "self-governance" and "democracy." Rather than attempt to convince a majority of people to adopt an entirely new ethical or political system, we only need to draw their attention to the fact that there is a conflict within their current one: While most people believe in the right to self-government, their failure to recognize a universal right to secede from a civil association significantly vitiates that right. Pointing out a conflict in already existing moral beliefs was precisely the method by which the abolitionist movement succeeded in virtually eliminating human slavery.

Another, closely related reason I claim our moral principle is important is that the realization of anarchy as conceived here does not require widespread agreement on what the specific laws of a civil association ought to be. On the contrary, the recognition of a right to secession peacefully accommodates the widest possible divergence of opinion about which particular laws are just, by enabling a multitude of legal systems to co-exist without intrinsic conflict between them.

Furthermore, a right to secession does not commit those forwarding the right to any particular form of organization for defense and law enforcement. Different civil associations might hire private defense agencies, as proposed by Murray Rothbard and David Friedman, form mutual defense agencies, as recommended by Paul Birch, establish the sort of insurance system proposed by Bob Murphy, or employ some yet undreamed of form of defense and law enforcement.

It is obvious, I think, that private-property anarchists and anarcho-socialists who recognize a universal right to form, join, and leave civil associations can get along. Some private-property anarchists and some anarcho-socialists might find the rule of law that members of the other group choose to live under bizarre or unjust. However, as long as membership in a civil association is voluntary, and no group tries to impose its vision of just law on any other, there is no reason why they should not live in peace with each other.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, there are both private-property anarchists and anarcho-socialists who seem unable to tolerate the idea that others who would freely choose to live under a rule of law different from the one that they consider just. For example, there are many anarcho-socialists who cannot abide the idea that anyone anywhere is accumulating capital or working for a wage.

Among private-property anarchists, I have found a similar intolerance sometimes expressed in relation to fractional reserve banking (FRB). I understand the distaste with which many private-property anarchists view FRB and I believe they have a perfect right to form civil associations that do not permit the practice. However, one market anarchist told me that FRB must be banned everywhere. Now, if all he meant was that he hoped to persuade everyone that the practice is pernicious and ought to be banned, then his view is compatible with the world of polycentric law I describe here. But it was clear to me that he meant more than that: he believed FRB must be forcibly stamped out wherever it exists. Let us consider the implication of such a dictum.

Imagine two civil associations, Rothbardville and Friedmantown, existing next to each other. (Of course, in the system I describe members of the two groups might even be geographically intermingled, but that is unimportant to our example.) FRB is banned in Rothbardville, but practiced enthusiastically in Friedmantown. To be consistent, my correspondent would have to endorse an invasion of Friedmantown by Rothbardville in order to force the Friedmanites to give up FRB. However, as long as the Friedmanites were not attempting surreptitiously to pass fractional reserve notes to the Rothbardians, it clearly would be an act of aggression on the part of the Rothbardians to attack them. Should any individual Friedmanite complain to a Rothbardian that he believes his rights are being violated by having his demand deposits not being held entirely in bank vaults, the correct response from the Rothbardians is: "We absolutely agree. So secede from Friedmantown and become a citizen of Rothbardville." There is no reason the two groups could not live in peace and even trade with each other, as long as the Friedmanites used gold or notes fully backed by gold for payments to the Rothbardians. The Rothbardians might find the Friedmanites' indulgence in FRB to be foolish in the extreme, just as anarcho-socialists might find both the Rothbardian and the Friedmanite toleration of wage labor to be so foolish. But liberty entails the right to be foolish, so long as one doesn't force one's foolishness on others.

* I would like to thank Jan Lester and Paul Birch for their very helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article.

Gene Callahan is an adjunct scholar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and the author of the book, Economics For Real People.

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